Monday, April 4, 2011

Modigliani - Part Two

After a long interruption, continuing with my review of Meryle Secrest's book, Modigliani: A Life... (Part One is here.)

Amedeo Modigliani about 1916, from the full-length photo of him that appears on the book's dustjacket

When I left off, Modigliani was sculpting and working closely with Brancusi, according to Secrest, and she even implies that perhaps Brancusi got the idea for his Endless Column from Modi, as others have said.  Modigliani worked for about four years as a sculptor, from 1910 to the spring of 1913. One of his ideas was to create a Temple of Beauty, apparently including caryatids supporting the roof. He worked for two or three years drawing and sketching these figures.

One of Modi's caryatids with beads around her waist and pubic area

A more active version

Another caryatid from 1913

During this time Modigliani was sculpting heads from stone that he found or "borrowed", but he was unable to sell his work. He exhibited at the Salon des Independants and in a private show with another sculptor. The first sale of sculpture that he made was to the artist August John, who visited Modi's studio and bought two of them for a few hundred francs.

Poor and ill
Other than this windfall sale, Modigliani was desperate for money. He generally made a little income by roaming the cafes for likely prospects who would pay for the portraits he drew of them on the spot. Secrest quotes a contemporary painter describing Modi at work: "His working method was always the same. He would begin with the two essential points, first the nose of his model, which one finds emphasized in all his work, next the eyes, with their different polarities, then the mouth and finally the outline of the face, delicately indicated by cross-hatching....He was usually good for four or five drawings like this, sometimes more, that were superb. The rest were usually dissolved in drink."  Jean Cocteau said Modi "used to hand out his drawings like some gypsy fortuneteller, giving them away..."

Modigliani's portrait of Diego Rivera, 1914

During the winter of 1912-13, Modigliani suffered from poverty and illness, to the point that his friends took up a collection to send him home to his mother in Livorno to nurse him back to health. After his return to Montmarte in the spring, Modigliani apparently drifted away from sculpting for several reasons, including the strenuousness of carving stone and his inability to sell the work or interest anyone in it. (Secrest says that 27 of Modigliani's sculptures have survived - 17 of them in museums. One that was privately owned sold in June 2010 for $52.8 million.)

More Alcohol, Drugs and Bad Behavior
Apparently Modi's consumption of alcohol increased from about 1914, after his return from Livorno. Secrest believes that was because his tuberculosis symptoms worsened and he drank to keep from coughing and spitting. Laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) was the preferred antispasmodic along with morphine and heroin - all legal drugs. Next in order were cognac, brandy and whiskey. If nothing else was available, small sips of wine would work. Modi also used hashish. At this time, Modi began to act out when he drank, removing his clothing, breaking glasses, insulting waiters and customers in the cafes. Secrest believes that he was "no shambling drunk but a man on a desperate mission, running out of time and calculating what he had to do in order to go on working and concealing his secret for however long remained....At the same time he was launching himself on the most successful and productive period of his career."

Two Dealers
Modigliani finally found a dealer for his work, Guillaume Cheron, who paid him ten francs a day to paint. Cheron provided a studio, paints, brushes, canvas, a model and a bottle of brandy. The arrangement was pursued for a while, but Modigliani resented working for Cheron. Soon after he split with this dealer, Modi was introduced to Paul Guillaume, who became his new dealer.

Modigliani's dealer 1914-1918, Paul Guillaume

Beatrice Hastings
In the same year, 1914, Modigliani met Beatrice Hastings, who wrote a weekly column about life in Paris and who became his lover. He moved in with her and she may also have paid for his studio. Secrest writes quite a lot about Beatrice and quotes from her columns, which I found so insular that they were not understandable. The world was on the edge of World War I and Paris began to have fortifications built around it. Refugees began arriving and Parisians mobbed trains, taxis and every mode of transportation trying to leave the city.

One of Modigliani's many portraits of Beatrice

Beatrice in as Madame Pompadour

Modigliani made a successful transition from sculptor to painter, and Secrest speculates that the distinctive look he developed in his portraits arose from his own illness and the "Romantic tradition of the consumptive" such as portrayed by the pre-Raphaelites in cadaverous bodies and sensual mouths. Modigliani was influenced by his study of African sculpture and perhaps also by Picasso's portrait of Gertrude Stein, which Secrest believes Modi would have seen in Picasso's studio. "The more he paints individuals the more their particular features fade into the background, and the more faces seem encased in a smooth shell as hard as a carapace, " says Secrest. Unlike Picasso, however, Modigliani was not interested in rearranging the features of a face but  in "trying to simplify and reduce to the irreducible minimum the essence of a personality without actually losing it altogether." Others have said that the mask-like faces he painted may have come from the commedia dell'arte or from his family's example of concealing emotional stress and presenting a mask of pride to the world despite desperate circumstances (a stretch).

The long necks, tilted heads and masked expressions of Botticelli may have been another influence on Modigliani

Botticelli madonna

The Painting Tally
Secrest provides a tally of the number of paintings Modigliani painted during his days in Paris as researched and published by Ambrogio Ceroni in I dipinti di Modigliani of 1970. Between 1906 and 1913, Modigliani completed about 40 paintings. After putting aside sculpture and turning to painting full time in 1914, Modigliani made seven paintings that year. He began to accelerate his work after that and made 53 paintings in 1915, 58 in 1916, 58 in 1917, 66 in 1918, and in his final year of life, when he was quite ill, he was still able to complete 54 paintings, a grand total of 270. However, some scholars believe that the Ceroni list is incomplete and that actually there were between 425 and 450 works made by Modigliani during his 13 years in Paris.

Modigliani did not paint portraits on commission but painted friends, lovers, acquaintances, professional models (when he could afford to pay them) and people he saw on the street and invited to sit for him.

Jeanne Hebuterne

The Final Girlfriend
Modigliani and Beatrice Hastings were not well matched, according to Secrest: she was a proto-feminist and he was an "old-fashioned Italian." They split up sometime in 1916 and that same year Modigliani met Jeanne or Jeannette Hebuterne, a young art student, 16 years his junior. They became lovers and in the spring of 1918, Jeanne found she was pregnant. Secrest speculates that Modigliani may have fathered a couple of children with other women that he did not or would not claim. In Jeanne's case, there was no denying it, but Modigliani would not marry her, despite the disgrace that pregnancy brought on her and the shock and horror her parents felt. Jeanne delivered the baby girl, also named Jeanne Hebuterne, in Nice, where she had gone with her mother to escape the public knowledge of her condition. Modigliani also relocated to Nice for a few months with several other artists because of the encroachment of the war on Paris. Shortly after the end of her first pregnancy, Jeanne became pregnant again.

Leopold Zborowski, 1918, Modigliani's final dealer

The Final Dealer
By this time, Modigliani had signed with his new dealer, Leopold Zborowski, an up and comer who was determined to make a success of himself. Zborowski also represented Utrillo, a "hopeless alcoholic," and when he signed Modigliani, it was with the understanding that he would also represent Modigliani's pal Soutine, who was such a disreputable presence that Zborowski's wife would not let him in their house.

Zborowski wanted Modigliani to begin painting nudes because they would attract attention (and sales). Secrest says Modi's nudes are among his most famous works and were described by Kenneth Clark in The Nude as "simple, sensuous and passionate as the poetry of Keats." Modigliani's nudes displayed one shocking characteristic - they showed underarm and pubic hair!

When Modigliani had his first one-man show in late 1917, he included several nudes among the 37 paintings he showed. This exhibition attracted the attention of local police who made the gallery remove a painting of a nude with pubic hair from the window because it was "an offense against public morals."

Modigliani Meets Success -- Too Late
Initially, Zborowski was unable to sell Modigliani's work, but he doggedly kept at it, trying to persuade people to buy the work or even being willing to give it away to promote the artist he so strongly believed in. By the time Modigliani's work was recognized by a well-known art critic, it was 1919, near the end of his life. Roger Fry, an artist and critic in London, reviewed the paintings Modigliani showed in a group exhibition of other French artists at the Mansard Gallery in London. Modigliani had 59 paintings in the show, more than anyone else. "Suddenly everybody who was anybody wanted a Modigliani," says Secrest.

In August of 1919 when he was scheduled to be in London at the exhibition that put him on the map, Modigliani was back in Paris suffering from another bout of influenza. He was too sick to travel and his health was so poor that his dealer put holds on sales of his paintings in London in the expectation that prices would double or triple if Modigliani died!

Self portrait, 1919

Tuberculous Meningitis
Secrest describes the condition that ultimately became the cause of Modigliani's death when the tubercular bacillus traveled to his brain. She says that the bacillus can migrate anywhere in the body, although it primarily attacks the lungs. "It can infect the spine, lymph nodes, genitourinary tract, gastrointestinal or peritoneum, and so on." In tuberculous meningitis, the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord (the meninges) become infected. If untreated, the condition leads to blindness and death. "Tuberculosis is exacerbated by malnutrition, excessive alcohol and drug use, or other disorders that compromise the immune system," Secrest says, and these are the very conditions that had plagued Modigliani for years.

Modigliani in 1919

Struggling Toward the End
That fall of 1919, Modigliani was slow to recover from the flu and had very low energy for painting although Vlaminck described him as "continually in a state of febrile agitation. The least vexation would make him wildly excited." He was trying to paint but had to keep taking to his bed because he became so tired as the bacillus invaded various parts of his body, including his kidneys. By this time, the handsome, aristocratic-looking man had become thin, drawn and toothless. All his teeth had fallen out due to the disease,  malnutrition or drugs. Modigliani became more and more ill, finally unable to leave his bed and ultimately being taken to a hospital, where he died two days later on January 24th, 1920.

Jeanne 1919

Valued More in Death Than in Life
Modigliani's friends arranged an elaborate funeral for him and burial in Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Secrest says that the amount spent on the funeral was an ironic contrast to the poverty in which Modigliani had lived for years. Jeanne, who had been eight months pregnant at the time of Modigliani's death, was not present at the funeral on 27th of January. She jumped to her death from a window in her parents' sixth floor apartment at 3:00 a.m. on January 25th. She was buried in disgrace by her parents a few days later in a suburban town, and her body was moved to Modigliani's grave a few years later.

Jeanne Hebuturne and Modigliani's daughter, Jeanne, who was legally recognized as a Modigliani at age 3 1/2. Later in her life, Jeanne became an artist and also an alcoholic.

The Inheritance
Due to the dogged persistence of his mother, both Jeanne Hebuternes received the recognition they deserved for their place in his life. Jeanne the mother was moved to Modigliani's grave and their daughter became Jeanne Modigliani, in legal recognition of his parentage. As his only recognized living child, Jeanne Modigliani would inherit the proceeds from sales of Modigliani's work. In the usual arrangement that her father had with his dealers, they owned four-fifths of the sale price while one-fifth went to the artist or his heirs. Unfortunately for Jeanne, most of her father's work was owned by the dealers so that her share of sale proceeds was fairly small, however, she did earn substantial fees for authentification of his works. Under French law, only an artist's family has the right to pronounce on a work's authenticity (called the "droit morale" or moral right) and is paid a fee for this service. Unfortunately, Jeanne certified many paintings that apparently were not authentic.

One of the many Modigliani fakes

The legend of Modigliani the drunken wastrel was promoted in the 2004 movie about his life starring Andy Garcia as Modigliani. He was also portrayed in the movie as a bitter rival of Picasso - a fictional invention. Life is usually more glamorous and simpler in the movies.

The true story of Modigliani is tragic and ironic in that his work is so valued today while it was worthless during his life. Secrest's book gives all the details and relates as much of the truth as she was able to find. It was worthwhile reading if only to confirm again that artists' struggles are nothing new, and that if we find it hard to achieve monetary success as artists today, we are in good company. (Note: read Joanne Mattera's comment below for a good summing up.)


Joanne Mattera said...

Good series, Nancy.
"La Boheme" has prettier music and costumes, but the story is the same.

So many heartbreaking elements to the story you have recounted, but I'll pick three: the tubercular man smoking (to say nothing of ingesting all that other stuff); the young woman who gets pregnant not once but twice and then jumps to her death leaving a young child behind, reminding us that one person's dissolute life can extend in many directions; and the fact that an artist who lived in penury and pain, unable to sell his work for much of his life, could have a work that sold in June 2010 for $52.8 million.

I'm not being judgmental, just observational. It's still not easy for most artists, but I hope they are ever reminded that they have more options than Modi and Jeanne.

Nancy Natale said...

You made an excellent summing up, Joanne. Thank you. It was a tragic story made worse by the ironic developments after the deaths of the two central players. I also didn't go into the rather disjointed and confused life of Modi's daughter and her horrific end from alcoholism.

Unknown said...

Hi Nancy,
I have just discovered your wonderful blog. I'd like to thank you very much for your insights and also for your choices of artiststhat you share your thoughts about, many of whom I have very deep regards and feelings for: Modigliani, Guston, Hedda Sterne and Joan Mitchell. I posted a comment yesterday and wanted to make sure that you received it regarding Hedda Sterne's death last Friday, April 8, 2011. With thanks, Deborah Kerner

Wendy Rodrigue Magnus said...

Thank you for this post, Nancy-It was so sad-

And it reminds me of a recent story:

Two years ago I overheard a conversation at an artist's booth at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. The artist, a gentle and lovely man, was suffering from cancer, and could not be there due to his illness. We knew him, as we collected his work and often brought him art supplies and art books. George (my husband) would spend hours with him on visits to his modest country studio.

On this beautiful Jazz Fest April afternoon, I overheard his dealer tell a potential collector, as she looked at the $10,000-$20,000 price tags, "You'd better buy now, because he's dying, and the prices will go up."

I felt ill. We left the fair (with me in tears). This beautiful, simple man and soulful artist died two months later, leaving no heirs. The agent held a funeral (with price list) around the casket in her gallery (like many, we could not walk through the door). Now the agent rents a space down the street from ours in the French Quarter, cheapening his art with her giclees of his work, 'highlighted' by her son. I cross the street rather than walk by the window.

I remember the day his agent gave this artist enough money to buy a new refrigerator. He called us because he was so happy-

Nancy Natale said...

What a terrible story! I don't blame you for not being able to walk by that gallery. We can only hope that the agent will get hers one of these days. You and George gave the artist true friendship and attention while he was alive and those memories of time with him are the most important thing. His true spirit and art live on with you.